Excerpts from THE KILLER ANGELS
by Michael Shaara
1. Why Lee Attacked the Union Positions on the High Ground Near Gettysburg
He sat down once more against the rail fence. The horse moved in over him; he had to move to keep from being stepped on. He sat on the far side of the fence and reviewed the facts and made the decision.
It did not take him very long. He was by nature a decisive man, and although this was one of the great decisions of his life and he knew it, he made it quickly and did not agonize over it. He did not think of the men who would die; he had learned long ago not to do that. The men came here ready to die for what they believed in, for their homes and their honor. and although it was often a terrible death it was always an honorable death, and no matter how bad the pain it was only temporary, and after death there was the reward.
The decision was clear. It had been there in the back of his mind all that night, as he worked, remembering every moment the sight of his blue Virginia flags going up that long slope to the top, almost to victory, so close he could feel the world over there beginning to give like a rotten brick wall. He could not retreat now. It might be the clever thing to do, but cleverness did not win victories; the bright combinations rarely worked. You won because the men thought they would win, attacked with courage, attacked with faith, and it was the faith more than anything else you had to protect; that was one thing that was in your hands, and so you could not ask them to leave the field to the enemy. And even if you could do that, cleverly, there was no certainty they would find better ground anywhere else, not even any certainty that they could extricate themselves without trouble, and so he had known all along that retreat was simply no longer an alternative, the way a man of honor knows that when he has faced an enemy and exchanged one round of blows and stands there bleeding, and sees the blood of the enemy, a man of honor can no longer turn away. So he would stay. And therefore, he would attack. The rest was clear as an engraving, so natural there seemed no alternative. There would be no surprise now; speed no longer mattered. So motion meant nothing. The enemy had been attacked on both wings; he had reinforced there and would be strongest there. So the weak point was the center.
The enemy had high ground on each wing, but in the center there was a long slope. So he would be softest there, and if you hit him there with everything you had, all the artillery firing to prepare the way in a pont au feu, if you sent Pickett's fresh Virginians straight up the center with Longstreet's hand the guiding force, the dominant force, you would drive a split in the center and cut Meade's army in two, break the rotten wall and send the broken pieces flying in all directions, so that if you sent Stuart's cavalry around to the rear he could complete the rout, in among the wagons to finish the wreckage, yes, Stuart raw with wounded pride and so anxious to redeem himself that he would let nothing stop him, and neither would Pickett, who had come in that day so desperately eager for battle. (Pages 268 & 269)
2. Lee’s Reasons for Joining the Confederacy
He remembered the night in Arlington when the news came: secession. He remembered a paneled wall and firelight. When we heard the news we went into mourning. But outside there was cheering in the streets, bonfires of joy. They had their war at last. But where was there ever any choice? The sight of fire against wood paneling, a bonfire seen far off at night through a window, soft and sparky glows always to remind him of that embedded night when he found that he had no choice. The war had come. He was a member of the army that would march against his home, his sons. He was not only to serve in it but actually to lead it, to make the plans and issue the orders to kill and burn and ruin. He could not do that. Each man would make his own decision, but Lee could not raise his hand against his own. And so what then? To stand by and watch, observer at the death? To do nothing? To wait until the war was over? And if so, from what vantage point and what distance? How far do you stand from the attack on your home, whatever the cause, so that you can bear it? It had nothing to do with causes; it was no longer a matter of vows.
When Virginia left the Union she bore his home away as surely as if she were a ship setting out to sea, and what was left behind on the shore was not his any more. So it was no cause and no country he fought for, no ideal and no justice. He fought for his people, for the children and the kin, and not even the land, because not even the land was worth the war, but the people were, wrong as they were, insane even as many of them were, they were his own, he belonged with his own. And so he took up arms wilfully, knowingly, in perhaps the wrong cause against his own sacred oath and stood now upon alien ground he had once sworn to defend, in honor, and he had arrived there really in the hands of God, without any choice at all; there had never been an alternative except to run away, and he could not do that. But Longstreet was right, of course: be had broken the vow. And he would pay. He knew that and accepted it. He had already paid. He closed his eyes. Dear God, let it end soon.
Now he must focus his mind on the war. ... (Pages 263 & 264)
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